Pens, Palettes and their Visual Metaphors

L: Thoth, Egyptian god of writing                R: Daumier, The Battle of the Schools

Thoth was an Egyptian god best known in art as having the head of an ibis (above left). He had many functions but was perhaps most celebrated as the scribe of the gods, the inventor of heiroglyphs and writing, and who, when people died, wrote down the weight of each heart as they entered the underworld. Writing was his baby. Thoth was considered the real author of every book of knowledge, human and divine, and is often shown scribbling on a palette.

Palette? Originally, long before the pharaohs, stone palettes were used for cosmetics just like an artist uses one for paint. However, they were later used in larger format but similar shape to record judgments and historic deeds. The Narmer palette recounting the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is the most famous. This ability to think of shapes in alternate capacities is fundamental to art. The prime example on EPPH is that artists use swords, lances and other weapons on the underlying level to represent a paintbrush or pen. There are several reasons but none would likely work in visual art if they were not of similar shape. Most are long and thin and are held in the hand. Shields, of course, are the sword's counterpart and naturally became the palette to the sword's brush, both flat and curved. Henri Daumier, one of whose caricatures I will write about tomorrow, was a great master and clearly aware of the objects' esoteric symbolism in art. In a cartoon (above right) designed for the masses he depicted two warrior-painters, Idealism and Realism, fighting it out with brush, mahlstick and palettes. 

That's why I was taken by Clement Salaman's remark in the introduction to his wonderful translation of the hermetic text, Asclepius, otherwise known as The Perfect Discourse of Hermes Trismegistus. He notes that the ibis was a fitting bird to represent Thoth, who the Romans later identified with Hermes, "since it has a long, pointed beak, appropriate for the god who invented writing and letters."1 We are never likely to know the truth but I doubt the link between a long, thin writing instrument and long, thin beak was coincidence. 

1. Clement Salaman, trans. and ed. Asclepius (London: Gerald Duckworth) 2007, p. 24

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